Five great films (and one bad-but-well-loved film) were released in a one-month span.
Twenty-five years ago this month — amid the general cultural vacuum of the early '90s — moviegoers, at least, had something going for them.
Glengarry Glen Ross — perhaps the greatest acting clinic (men-only category) ever committed to film — kicked off the month on the same weekend as The Mighty Ducks — perhaps, uh, well, certainly the only film ever to have a professional sports team named after it.
Then came Under Siege, which was a record-breaking hit for Warner Bros. and cemented Steven Seagal's place on the action star A-list alongside Arnold, Sly, Bruce and JCVD (while also featuring the brilliant villain tandem of Gary Busey and Tommy Lee Jones), and Robert Redford's A River Runs Through It, a Montana-set coming-of-age drama that won the cinematography Oscar and featured Brad Pitt in his first (notable) lead role in a major studio film.
Candyman managed to rise above typical requisite October horror fare thanks to a haunting performance from Tony Todd as the titular lovelorn phantom and an equally haunting score from Philip Glass (remember this?). And Reservoir Dogs (which already had a 25th anniversary blowout at this year's Tribeca Film Festival in April), the feature directorial debut of one Quentin Tarantino, was also given a limited release after premiering at Sundance in January.
Not too shabby, right?
Last time we bestowed this honor on a month, there were seven films singled out. Just missing the cut here was Gary Sinise's adaptation of the Steinbeck novella Of Mice and Men, starring Sinise and John Malkovich. It actually has a higher Rotten Tomatoes score that any film on this list (96 to Glengarry's 94 and Reservoir Dogs' 90). However, I'd argue this is due to the, uh, most rotten thing about the Tomatometer system, whereby a film with across-the-board "I mean, yeah it was pretty good. No major complaints!" reviews can outrank a film with mostly raves and a few contrarian "Actually, this is bad"s. None of the THR critics consulted for this piece thought it worth inclusion — if they remembered it at all. In conclusion … more like Of Mice and Meh.
For people of a certain age — say, the recently carved-out tweener generation not quite at home in Gen X, who dwelled in their parents' basements by choice, and millennials, who didn't — the question is and ever will be this: The Mighty Ducks, or The Sandlot?
Myself, I hold with those who favor ice hockey.
For those not born between 1980 and 1985, The Mighty Ducks stars Emilio Estevez as Gordon Bombay, a hotshot Minneapolis lawyer who shares a first name and an aesthetic with Michael Douglas' Wall Street avatar. A DUI arrest leads to, what else, a court-ordered stint as the head coach of a hapless pee-wee hockey team. The team sucks, Gordon can't relate to them, their square-jawed, disciplined rivals (for which Gordon used to play in his youth) scoff at them. But then they "come together as a team," make a few fart jokes, you know where this is going …
(The rival coach is played by the great Lane Smith, who had a solid '92, also starring as the prosecutor in My Cousin Vinny and Dick Dodge in The Distinguished Gentleman.)
The film was not well-received by critics — with Mighty Ducks sporting an abysmal 15 percent rating on Rotten Tomatoes — but neither was it made for adults. THR reviewer Duane Byrge (notably, an adult), however, largely spared the rod, sagely predicting that "elementary school kids should warm to this rambunctious tale of teamwork and personal triumph, happily unaware of its cookie-cutter corners." (Also, probably — hopefully — the only THR review ever to use the word "plucky" twice.)
Mighty Ducks is just this: an above-average, enjoyable, formulaic sports movie about a band of loveable misfits who beat the odds. It might well have been forgotten outside that narrow band of early '80s babies who were so spoiled in the above-average, enjoyable, formulaic sports movie department if not for the fact that the year following its release, The Walt Disney Co. established an actual, honest-to-God NHL franchise in Anaheim and named them the Mighty Ducks. It remains unappreciated just how insane this was.
Full disclosure: Glengarry Glen Ross is my favorite movie. A boring choice, maybe, but what can I say? I have a thing for a) great acting, and b) monologues, and David Mamet's adaptation of his own 1984 Pulitzer-winning play serves up plenty of both.
The film stars Al Pacino, Jack Lemmon, Ed Harris and Alan Arkin as four seedy real estate salesmen, plying their trade at Premiere Properties. (N.B.: As a copy editor this has always bothered me. It should be Premier Properties, as premier, no third e, is the adjective meaning "first in position or prominence." But, trusting Mamet here, I've come to believe this homophone mix-up is intentional, as the properties they're hawking are in no way premier.) It's been a rough couple of weeks, you see, because "the leads are weak." Their supervisor, a sneering, smarmy Kevin Spacey, has a new list of fleecable rubes that their bosses, the mysterious Mitch and Murray, "paid good money for" — but he's holding out on them. Instead, they're forced to subsist on an ever thinning gruel of dead ends and deadbeats. An office theft of the choice "Glengarry leads" provides the wisp of plot that ties together a meditation on dominance, impotence, and what a man has to buy before he can effectively sell.
Hard to pick a clip to include because the entire movie is pretty much one long master class on line-nailing. These guys don't chew scenery, they swallow it whole and shit out episodes of Inside the Actors Studio. The Alec Baldwin "Coffee is for closers" monologue — which wasn't in the play; Mamet wrote it for the film, and for Baldwin, specifically — is rightly infamous, quotable as it is. But Pacino's work opposite Jonathan Pryce (a potential mark, as good as the rest of the cast in his limited screen time), expounding on the constraints of middle-class morality, or his tirade after Spacey's character costs him a Cadillac El Dorado (see below), are as remarkable. But Jack Lemmon — as the office's former sales leader suffering through an emasculating cold "streak" that leaves him in a perpetual, wretched quiver — out-acts them all, and the fact that he wasn't even nominated for an Oscar (Pacino was, for supporting, in the same year he won the lead trophy for Scent of a Woman) is, IMHO, one of the biggest snubs in my lifetime. At least the writers on The Simpsons appreciated his genius.
Read THR critic John DeFore's take on the film's legacy here.
After playing, respectively, a Chicago cop, an L.A. cop, a retired DEA agent, and a Brooklyn cop, in his first four films, Steven Seagal decided to branch out and play a cook.
But Petty Officer Casey Ryback is, of course, no ordinary cook. He's an ex-SEAL Team commander who was demoted after striking a superior following a botched mission. Now he makes bouillabaisse in the bowels of a battleship, serving out his 20.
Under Siege, directed by Andrew Davis, takes place on the USS Missouri — the actual battleship on whose deck Gen. Douglas MacArthur accepted the unconditional surrender of Japan, thus ending the Second World War — that was decommissioned by the Navy in March of 1992. Screenwriter J.F Lawton read an article about the retirement, which gave him the idea for a script about a terrorist plot to take over the ship on its final voyage and sell off its arsenal of nuclear warheads.
The film was characterized in many reviews at the time (including THR's) as "Die Hard on a boat" — but it was meant as a compliment. Under Siege netted Warner Bros. the biggest-ever October opening weekend at the time, and it stayed No. 1 for four weeks. (The film that dethroned it? Wesley Snipes' Passenger 57, characterized in many reviews as "Die Hard on a plane" — not meant as a compliment). But aside from the confined confines, the other element it shares with Die Hard is a stellar villain. Tommy Lee Jones' disgruntled ex-CIA operative turned rock 'n' roll singer William Strannix is every bit as compelling as Alan Rickman's Hans Gruber, and Gruber didn't get to have a wild-eyed, swaggering Gary Busey as his No. 2. Jones and Busey do their best throughout to steal the film, but Seagal — theretofore not known for his acting ability so much as his glowering-after-breaking-your-wrist-in-five-places ability — more than admirably holds his own.
Fun fact: Jones' appearance in Under Siege was sandwich in between his Oscar-nominated performance in JFK and his Oscar-winning performance in The Fugitive (also directed by Davis), so believe me when I tell you he was doing his best work.
Here, in the year of our lord 2017, it's hard to imagine a time when Brad Pitt wasn't, you know, Brad Pitt. But 25 years ago, Pitt was just "that hot guy from Thelma & Louise" who was desperate to prove he was more than just a hot guy — he was a hot guy who could act!
After a few early attempts at lead roles that didn't do much to support his case (Remember Cool World? Me either), A River Runs Through It finally provided Pitt with his Exhibit A.
The coming-of-age drama, based on the semi-autobiographical novel by Norman Maclean, tells the story of Norman (Craig Sheffer) and his brother, Paul (Pitt), growing up in Montana during World War I. Their father, a Presbyterian minister (Tom Skerritt, given ample opportunity here to gaze upon his castmates with the bemused, benificent expression that is his bread and butter), is equally fanatical about two faiths: Presbyterianism, and fly fishing in the Blackfoot River. The film, the third feature directorial effort from Robert Redford, leans heavily on its bucolic setting, earning cinematographer Philippe Rousselot an Oscar for his sun-drenched, Big Sky vistas. (A propos of nothing in particular, the movie also featured Joseph Gordon-Levitt as Young Norman in his first big-screen role.)
THR's review called Sheffer and Pitt "perfectly suited to their respective roles, with the former exhibiting a quiet, controlled intelligence, while Pitt … gives off a devil-may-care sparkle, bearing an uncanny resemblance to a young Redford."
In a December 1994 Rolling Stone cover story, Pitt said that he thought A River Runs Through It was "one of my weakest performances. It's so weird that it ended up being the one that I got the most attention for." But by that point he had a few more solid films under his belt, including Kalifornia, True Romance, Interview With the Vampire, and the then-soon to be released Legends of the Fall. And he'd get a whole lot more attention a month later, when he was named People's Sexiest Man Alive!
Pitt is still waiting on his first acting Oscar.
October 1992, as is the case every year, saw a few Halloween-adjacent horror films make their way into theaters. One was Dr. Giggles — the less said about it, the better. The other was Candyman, a rare-at-the-time urban-set slasher film starring Tony Todd as a hook-handed supernatural killer who could be summoned by chanting his name five times into a mirror. It is good.
Director-screenwriter Bernard Rose took a Clive Barker short story about a killer terrorizing a low-income apartment complex in Liverpool and moved the setting to the infamous — now demolished — Cabrini-Green housing projects in Chicago. (Aside from a long and troubled history of gang violence that made its name national shorthand for the issues plaguing public housing and poor urban black communities more generally, Cabrini-Green was also known for being the home of the Evans family in CBS' Good Times.)
Candyman stars Virginia Madsen as a grad student studying urban folklore who hears the legend of "the Candyman," the artist son of a former slave who was brutally murdered after fathering a child with a white woman, dubbed Candyman after a mob covered him with honey and watched as he was stung to death by angry bees. His body was burned and his ashes spread over land that would become Cabrini — and 100 years after his murder he's returned to seek revenge.
Aside from just being a solid creepshow, Candyman was near revolutionary in its portrayal of not just a black killer but black victims. Up until them, nearly ever film of its type had been set in the suburbs, or rural locations, where the (mostly white) victims' natural state is peace, safety, security. In Cabrini, Candyman is just one threat among many. Poverty, racism, gang violence, corrupt police, an indifferent political system — none of that has to be summoned by an incantation.
Also, the score, by Philip Glass, is essential. Heavy on organs, pianos and choral arrangements, by turns melancholy and portentous, it never allows the viewer to get comfortable. And the central theme is an earworm with few rivals in the horror canon outside maybe Halloween.
Read what THR critic Stephen Dalton has to say about the film here.
The toast of the 1992 Sundance Film Festival was a low-budget heist pic written and directed by (and starring) a 28-year-old former video store clerk named Quentin Tarantino.
The film stars Harvey Keitel, Steve Buscemi, Michael Madsen, Tim Roth, Edward Bunker and Tarantino as a crew of seasoned B&E vets assembled by Nice Guy Eddie (Chris Penn) and his dad, Joe (Lawrence Tierney), to plan and execute a jewelry store robbery, and famously given color names in order to hide their identities from each other, thus making it impossible for one to give up the rest if caught. In what has since become a Tarantino signature, the nonlinear narrative jumps from one prolix vignette to another, over and back over the burglary itself, which goes horribly awry, leading Buscemi's Mr. Pink to insist that a rat is in their midst.
That the film's violence was such a huge deal at the time now seems almost cute, as even by 1992 standards it wasn't particularly gruesome. Mr. Orange spends the film's third act in a pool of his own blood. Mr. Blonde cuts off a cop's ear — offscreen. Not exactly Cannibal Holocaust or Society. Nonetheless, Tarantino told the audience at a 25th anniversary screening earlier this year that he began counting walkouts during the Mr. Blonde ear-cutting scene. "33 was the largest [number]," he recalled. He counted five walk-outs at a Spanish horror film fest, "including Wes Craven! The fucking guy who did The Last House on the Left walked out?!"
A few sidenotes about the lesser-known members of the cast: Tierney and Bunker. Tarantino became familiar with the work of both men during his time working the auto-rewind machine at Manhattan Beach's Video Archives. Bunker wrote the screenplay (based on his own novel) for the 1978's Straight Time, starring Dustin Hoffman as a former convict struggling to keep his hands clean on the outside. A renowned author and screenwriter as well as an actor, Bunker drew upon his own experience, having spent the first 40 years of his life in and out of prison for a litany of crimes including armed robbery and drug trafficking, at one time landing on the FBI's most-wanted list. His name, Mr. Blue, is a reference to his autobiographical novel Little Boy Blue.
Tierney, who had been acting in tough-guy roles since the early '40s, also had a long rap sheet. The son of a New York policeman, Tierney's seemingly insatiable appetite for drunken brawling and other misdemeanors repeatedly derailed his career. One notable example: Tierney was cast as Elaine Benes' intimidating father, Alton, on Seinfeld. He might have become a recurring character, but during filming he stole a butcher's knife from Jerry's kitchen set. He also, somewhat ironically, voiced the mall security guard who catches Bart stealing on The Simpsons!